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Rana Pens Powerful New Book on Constitution

Professor suggests US needs to think hard about supposed strengths of its founding document.

Boston College Law School Professor Aziz Rana 

As part of the rollout for his new book, The Constitutional Bind, Professor Aziz Rana penned a New York Times op-ed calling for radical changes to our system of government, which the book calls “deeply undemocratic.” A few days later, the Times ran a letter from Nancy Pelosi, the former House speaker, in which she calls Rana’s article “a strong case for legislative solutions that will reinforce American democracy.” The book itself, published on April 16, has already drawn raves from the likes of Samuel Moyn of Yale Law School (an “astonishing masterpiece”) and David Pozen of Columbia Law School (“dazzling in its intellectual acuity”).

You have mentioned that time you spent abroad has given you a global perspective on law and politics, and fueled a scholarly interest in comparative constitutions. How does ours compare to those in other countries?

The US Constitution is an outlier. For one thing, it’s short—around 7,600 words where the average constitution runs around 20,000. It has very few stated rights, and most of those are negative or property rights. Many other constitutions confer women’s rights and socioeconomic rights that ours doesn’t explicitly detail. Most countries also give less power to their supreme courts. Worldwide, many supreme court justices face term limits, and many supreme courts are significantly larger than ours. The texts are also far easier to amend, offering publics alternative paths besides the courts for changing constitutional meaning, or incorporating new rights. In the US, by contrast, all constitutional politics get funneled into the Supreme Court. This is in addition to how unrepresentative institutions like the Senate are by comparison with legislative branches—even upper houses—elsewhere. It raises the question of why Americans assume that our Constitution comes as close as you can get to an ideal liberal democracy.

You write that from through most of the 20th century Americans treated the Constitution more as a sacred document than a set of rules for governing. Why has that begun to change?

The weaknesses of the Constitution were becoming more apparent because of a number of developments, including two presidential elections in less than 20 years that were won by a candidate who lost the popular vote; Supreme Court opinions that run counter to the views of large majorities of Americans; a gerrymandered House of Representatives; a Senate that is structured to give rural, small-state voters far more power than voters in large, urban states. I’d been teaching constitutional law since 2010 and was finding that more and more of my students wanted to engage these questions.

Given what you’ve said about how hard the Constitution is to amend, what would it take to bring meaningful change?

It would take a mass movement like the one in the 1910s and ‘20s that successfully pushed for amendments extending the vote to women, allowing the federal government to levy taxes on income, and requiring the direct election of US senators, or that informed the New Deal and the civil rights eras.

Do you see any indication that such a movement is coming together?

We are still some ways away, but the vibrancy of political organizing in the last decade, especially around labor and the movement for Black lives, speaks to the emergence of new coalitions committed to a more democratic politics. The question is how to expand these constituencies into a majority coalition on behalf of comprehensive constitutional reform.